Some readers may remember a column I wrote a while back about ‘ghost signs,’ those fading apparitions on old brick buildings that once listed an establishment’s merchandise, or advertised local products like bread, milk or tobacco.
The one who got me started on the subject was friend and fellow poet, Al Ortolani, who’d suggested it as the title of an upcoming book of poems by White Buffalo — the poetry, song and storytelling group comprised of the two of us, Melissa Fite Johnson and Adam Jameson.
It made immediate sense, for poets, songwriters and storytellers are called to read the signs of the times, commune with ghosts from the past, and scratch their words on the walls of time, both old and new.
So that’s how our book, published October 11th by Spartan Press, came to be called “Ghost Sign.” Inside are two hundred pages of poems and songs along with photographs of actual area ghost signs; some recently taken by Katharine Stelle Spigarelli and others provided by Janette Mauk from Axe Library Special Collections at Pitt State. The cover photo of the Tower Café and Ballroom is one provided to the Scenes of Pittsburg web site by Ron & Jeanell Lipasek.
To quote former PSU professor, Jo McDougal, who wrote the introduction, it’s “…a tribute to their native region, to both its ghosts and its very real characters and stories. This is honest work, lyrical and painful, joyous and sad.”
Readers will find there’s very little about Southeast Kansas that does not entrance us. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the people travel through four unique perspectives and onto the page.
In it you will find strip pits, baseball fields, pool halls, football games, classrooms, pep bands, funerals, churches, pickups, grandparents, families, couples, parents, children, paperboys, truckstops, dogs, cats, trains, coyotes, cemeteries, coal miners and more.
In short, it’s a long love letter to Southeast Kansas from four, working-class Little Balkans poets, all of whom grew up here and graduated from Pittsburg State.
We’ll be reading from our book at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 5th at the Stilwell Hotel Ballroom in Pittsburg. Don Viney will join us to play and sing original songs. Signed copies of Ghost Sign will be available for purchase.
A $5 donation at the door will benefit the Stilwell Heritage and Education Foundation. Both coffee and adult beverages will be available.
The venue is fitting because the Stilwell was once the home of The White Buffalo Café and Emporium, where the original White Buffalo traveling troupe (Karen Laskey, Judy Ruiz, John Knoll and myself) was born in 1983.
Also fitting because, were it not for the efforts of a very determined group of preservationists, the Hotel Stilwell would itself be a ghost, lost to the wrecking ball for the sake of practicality.
Those of you who’ve seen us perform before know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, especially if you got turned off to poetry in stuffy, chalk-dusted rooms in school, be aware that White Buffalo is “not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
Which is to say, it’s street poetry, storytelling, humor and song (with audience participation strongly encouraged) in the manner of a vaudeville show — the performers in which might have stayed at the Stilwell in the early 1900s while appearing at any one of the many opera houses in the area.
After reviewing the book, Kansas writer Thomas Fox Averill called Ghost Sign “a four-poet field guide to Southeast Kansas.”
Kansas Poet Laureate, Eric McHenry, wrote that it’s “both dirge and love song, haunted by loss and heartened by what endures.”
Author Kevin Rabas said it is “Full of the fingerprint of the everyday illuminated.” Which reminds me of the characterization of a poet by Walt Whitman, “If he breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe.”
So please join us at the Stilwell November 5th and we’ll all get dilated together. If you can’t make it and would like a copy of our book, they’re available at Barnes and Noble Bookstore at PSU or Amazon online.
If you’re not able to get out — or don’t have access to a computer — not to worry, just give me a call at the number below and I’ll paperboy a copy over to you in person.
Maybe recite a poem, share a joke, and do a little vaudeville schtick on your front porch to boot.
— J.T. Knoll is prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Mindfulness Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.